Painting Elephants Get Online Gallery

Hillary Mayell
for National Geographic News
June 26, 2002

Elephant Art Photo Gallery: Go >>

Paintings done by elephants have been sold at the elite auction houses such as Christie's and shown in museums and galleries around the world. Now the rising stars in the elephant art world have their own dedicated art gallery on the Internet, at

Asian elephants have been trained for centuries to haul logs for the forestry industry, but deforestation and restrictions on logging have meant the loss of jobs for many of them. Animals that can no longer earn their keep are frequently abandoned, mistreated, and starved.

For the past several years, Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, Russian-born conceptual artists based in New York, have been teaching domesticated elephants and their mahouts (elephants' lifelong trainers) how to paint.

Komar and Melamid, who tried creating art with dogs in the early 1970s, learned of the plight of the Asian elephants in 1995 when the two artists were engaged in an art project at the Toledo Zoo in Ohio involving an African elephant named Renee.

"Renee was just gorgeous—long lashes, long legged, and very gifted, very talented," said Komar. He recalled that Don Red Fox, a Native American elephant trainer at the Toledo Zoo, "a brilliant man who devoted his life to elephants, taught us how to behave around them, how to touch them to create a bond—he opened a lot of secrets for us."

Several elephant sanctuaries have been established in Southeast Asia, but funding is a perennial problem. Building on their experience working with Renee, Komar and Melamid went to Thailand in 1997 armed with huge canvases, paint, and brushes. In 1998 the artists founded the Lampang Elephant Art Academy at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Thailand.

Novica, a commercial online arts agent associated with the National Geographic Society, is now representing 15 of the academies' painting elephants. About half of the money from sales of elephant art at Novica will go directly to elephant sanctuaries in Southeast Asia.

"Only in America," said Komar, "could some crazy, idealistic idea become pragmatic charity."

Need for Stimulation

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